My Journey Toward Student Choice

I still remember the day. I was in my first year of teaching and I sat there holding my printed lesson plan. This was supposed to be my greatest lesson of the school year. I had planned it for hours, revising various aspects of it until it looked flawless. On paper. But now, in third period, it was clear that students weren’t engaged.

That’s not entirely true. Many of my students were engaged. They were listening, answering discussion questions, and participating. However, there something missing. Students were engaged but they weren’t empowered.

At the time, I viewed teaching as a content delivery system. I worked tirelessly to create content that would be meaningful, fun, and challenging. But still, it was always my content and I was always the person delivering it. I used terms like, “delivering a lesson” and “creating my own content” to describe this teacher-centered approach.

Don’t get me wrong. Students completed projects. However, these were culminating projects at the end of content-delivery. These projects didn’t resemble the types of projects that people do outside of a classroom. I had strict rules on everything from formatting to topics to style. I handed students instruction manual project sheets where they could walk through the process sequentially. So, while they were physically creating something, they were not engaged in creative thinking. They were following my recipe.

Looking back at it, I realize that these projects had always been about me. Here’s what I mean:

  • I chose the topic
  • I chose the content
  • I asked the questions
  • I wrote the instructions
  • I managed the project progress
  • I chose the tasks
  • I wrote the objectives
  • I picked the standards
  • I decided on the format
  • I determined whether or not the work was any good

In other words, my students were working for me rather than tapping into their own drive to create. For all my talk about valuing creativity and critical thinking, my students hadn’t experienced any semblance of creative control.

However, I was afraid. I had already tried a “free time” project that tanked due to the lack of structure, guidance, or resources. I wanted students to own the creative process, but I also knew that it wouldn’t work if I simply gave them free time and said, “go make something.”

All of that changed when I asked students to do a documentary project. I took a chance. I built the unit around the design thinking framework and allowed students to own the process and the finished product. Moreover, I asked them to launch their finished product to a real audience in the form of a video screening night.

Here, they had complete control over the content. They were making history — literally, by recording interviews, adding their own scripts, finding visuals, and then working collaboratively with other teams to create one larger documentary. It wasn’t perfect. I still asserted too much control on the process and our “authentic audience” ended up being just the kids in the classroom. Still, it was the first time I ever used design thinking in the classroom to empower my students to own the entire learning process.

The results were astounding. Students were more frustrated and more afraid than ever before. Kids were in tears when they couldn’t get something to work. However, they were also empowered. They were excited. They were passionate. They were makers.

Everything changed!

Looking back on it, I knew that students would thrive in a creative environment. However, I felt crippled by fear. I was afraid that I didn’t have enough resources. I was scared that their success in a creative project wouldn’t translate into higher test scores. I was concerned about classroom management issues (I had mistaken being busy with being engaged).

This was the start in a long journey toward student choice and ownership. Even now, as a college professor, I am still on this journey. I still have moments when I get scared and micromanage. But I know this: that student choice works. 

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